CHAMPLAIN, N.Y. – Omer Malik knew he had to slip into Canada to avoid President Donald Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
But the 19-year-old native of Afghanistan needed a friend to help guide him. He found that friend in a 66-year-old former French teacher, one of a number of people here in the Adirondack region who believe it’s their duty to comfort and support those fleeing Trump’s vision for America.
As Malik dragged his suitcase toward the Canadian border, Janet McFetridge gave him two bags of potato chips, a knit hat and – what she considers her most important gift – a hug. Then she yelled across the thicket of cattails and flowering grasses that separated them from Quebec.
“Hello,” she called, alerting a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer that Malik was about to illegally cross the border to claim asylum. “We got someone here.”
McFetridge is part of a loosely assembled network of progressive activists, faith leaders and taxi drivers who have mobilized to help undocumented immigrants cross the northern border. To some, they’re selfless do-gooders ushering people to better lives. To others, they’re perpetuating a problem that has debilitated Canada’s immigration system.
For centuries, residents note, towns in the Champlain Valley have been a path to security, serving as an escape route for people fleeing slavery, the Vietnam War draft and Central American wars. Now, when it comes to immigration, this GOP-friendly part of New York has become a hub of the resistance
“We view this as our Underground Railroad,” said Carole Slatkin, an advocate who has helped immigrants traveling through Essex, New York, a town that was part of a major route for enslaved people. “While no one is being flogged, and no one is being sold, there is this sort of modern-day equivalent of feeling like people are in danger.”
Advocates say they try not to give direct advice to the immigrants, instead helping them find a place to rest or supplies to ease their journey. But the image of U.S. citizens supporting immigrants who make the trip is controversial in Canada, threatening long-standing, cross-border camaraderie.
“To me, it’s just being abusive,” said Paul Viau, mayor of the township of Hemmingford, a Canadian farming community along the border. “There are people who sympathize with [the immigrants] and people who have a harder time with it. But no one appreciates that someone would pack them up and bring them to the border at an illegal crossing.”